« Needful things and personal appearances | Main | Apropos of nothing, she looks good in my green turtleneck. »

Eric: Requiescat In Pace: John M. Ford

And though I had slain a thousand foes less one,
The thousandth knife found my liver;
The thousandth enemy said to me,
'Now you shall die,
Now none shall know.'
And the fool, looking down, believed this,
Not seeing, above his shoulders, the naked stars,
Each one remembering.
--John M. Ford, The Final Reflection

I have a report from the truly wonderful weekend Weds and I had in Pennsylvania to write, but sometimes (all too often) life gets in the way. And then it's time to write another one of these damn things.

You may recall I'm part of a certain fraternity in the Role Playing Game developers community: guys who've written for Star Trek's officially licensed role playing game. That's an astoundingly cool thing -- a chance to play in the ultimate geek playground. But as neat as it is, the chances of actually influencing Star Trek that way are negligible. Sure, I can dream that someone will read my writeup on Mudd, decide it makes sense, and make reference to it in a later movie, but it's so astronomically unlikely that I might as well go back to hoping I win the lottery or spontaneous evolve superpowers: either of those is more likely. Even Kenneth Hite, arguably the finest Star Trek RPG developer in any system or game, hasn't had measurable effect on the universe we played in.

But one man did. One man hit the lottery. The same man who went on two write two Star Trek tie-in novels which rank among the best written, most popular, most commonly cited and most influential of the Star Trek tie in novels of all time.

His name was John M. Ford.

Ford's RPG work, over in Star Trek, was largely centered on Klingons. Back in those pre-Next Generation days, Klingons were an ill-defined metaphor for the Soviet Union -- a totalitarian race who enslaved peace loving worlds and turned them into fodder for their own empire. The closest we came to sympathetic Klingons was in Day of the Dove, and even that didn't make them into a fleshed out race. And in the plethora of Star Trek tie in novels, Klingons were adversaries and enemies at best. Barbarians and cruel sadists at worst.

Until John M. Ford came along.

Ford wrote several seminal products for the original Star Trek Roleplaying Game, published by FASA. He wrote The Klingons, Klingons: Star Trek Intelligence Manual, and Klingons: Game Operations Manual. He went from the then radical idea that Klingons shouldn't just be adversaries -- they should be a complete and fleshed out race. In fact, his work was designed to actually let players and GMs run entire Klingon-based campaigns -- campaigns that didn't need to focus on killing and torment, but actually were set in a consistent, workable, and above all alien empire.

Such things have been done before, and they've also been done since. But Ford pulled off something even more amazing. He (alongside editors and publishers at FASA) convinced Pocket Books and Paramount to let Ford also write a Klingon Star Trek-tie in novel. And that novel was entirely set in Ford's Klingon Empire, with the same terminology and assumptions he made for the role playing game being reflected in the novel.

That itself would be staggering. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in Star Trek. It would be many years and people like J. Michael Straczynski (with Babylon 5), Joss Whedon (with both Buffy and Firefly) and most significantly George Lucas (with Star Wars) before we would see tie-in literature and media incorporated into the official canon of their properties. Paramount has always been extremely chary about letting anything into the canon (including the entire Star Trek: The Animated Series). They sure as Hell never let two different license holders collaborate. That way lies chaos, and possibly even dancing.

But, they let Ford write his book. All by itself, that would be remarkable.

The book he wrote was The Final Reflection.

"It's not whether or not the bear dances well, but that it dances at all," or so they say. Well, this bear knew how to dance.

The Final Reflection is a serious and somber book about an extremely sympathetic protagonist who happens to be a Klingon. As we follow his life and times, we also learn about an empire where the strong grow, the weak fall into decline, and all others are kuve -- Servitor races, sometimes mistranslated as "slaves" (or even "meat"). There is even an analogue television program in the Klingon Empire -- Battlecruiser Vengence -- which culturally fits the same kind of roles for Klingons that a show like Star Trek (or, say, Galaxy Quest) would have fit for the Federation. There is the deeply significant chesslike game klin'zha. There is a heavy tradition of song, of music, of dreams. And of the stars in the sky above watching the deeds that brave men do and remembering them. There is an afterlife -- the Black Fleet, where brave warriors go to fight and spar for all eternity, killing their enemies a thousand times, laughing, and perhaps dying at their hands as well, for honor and glory.

Klin'zha is especially interesting. Our protagonist's foster father is a grand master of the game, and many Klingons believe that all of existence is itself an extended game of klin'zha (the Perpetual Game, as they call it). Fitting, perhaps, for a race that was itself largely defined (in this way, at least) as part of a Role Playing Game.

The Final Reflection sent a shockwave through Trek fandom. Back in those days, before any of us had ever even heard of Captain Picard, the Star Trek novels and the very rare movies (this was the same year that Star Trek III came out), the novels were what the faithful had to keep going. This novel stood out as one of the best -- it was serious, hardcore science fiction even if one cut out "Star Trek" from it entirely. It was even distinctive in that the original crew -- who had been in every other novel to come out, most of the time at the center of it -- were relegated to a wrapping device at the very beginning and very end of the book. This was a book almost entirely devoid of Kirk, and while both Spock and McCoy had some influence in the book, it was entirely different than we had come to expect.

Most of all, it was good. And it managed to make Klingons not just respectable, but sympathetic. People began to like the Klingons as more than brutes or enemies (or as more than a simple reaction against the Federation). While some folks (primarily Star Fleet Battles players, at least in my experience) enjoyed Klingons before that, it was always through the lens of their opposition to the Federation -- their antagonistic role. Now, Klingons could be protagonists.

Ford then followed this novel up with a second Klingon centered novel. It was a musical comedy.


The printed book was a musical comedy.

It was called How Much For Just the Planet and it was hysterical. From Scotty and a Klingon Engineer meeting and dueling on the field of honor (a golf course) to full sized inflatable starships, to an honest-to-Christ pie fight. And yet, the characters remained strong (and true to themselves) throughout. This was definitely the crew of the Enterprise from The Trouble with Tribbles and I, Mudd, but it was still the crew of the Enterprise.

While How Much For Just the Planet wasn't the same kind of epic transformation that The Final Reflection was, it was popular. Usenet sig files became full of quotes from it (my personal favorite being "Blueberry," Kirk thought instead of ducking. WHAM! Blueberry it was, which appeared quite often for a while in those sigs.) This was good old fashioned anarchic fun.

It was also a reaction against Paramount, who had explicitly kiboshed Ford's true sequel book to The Final Reflection. Their reasons became apparent quickly, when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, with a Klingon on the bridge. Paramount had begun to tighten their grip on Pocket Books's continuity, which in turn tightened their grip on the authors. Which Ford mocked in the book (at one point, Scotty looks at a distant mountain, notes its crown of stars, and makes mention of the comfort he feels in some higher power arranging them -- a clear reference to the Paramount logo).

Regardless, How Much for Just the Planet represented the end of Ford's involvement with the Star Trek license. But not his influence.

Klingons in The Next Generation and beyond are not Ford's Klingon's. For one thing, they're nowhere near as feasible, well developed, sustainable, rational, or alien. They are far more simplistic. And they're almost unreconcilable with the Klingons of the original series. In fact, the only way one could reconcile the two visions of the Klingon empire were through John M. Ford's eyes -- his Klingon Empire could support the original series and the far less sophisticated Next Generation model. However, even though Paramount went with other writers to create their House Klingons in Canon, you could see lots of places where the serial numbers have been filed off from Ford's version. The much mocked (and much celebrated) tradition of Klingon Opera comes from Ford, admitted or not. The three legendary Klingon captains from the Original Series to appear on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were named "Dahar masters," in echo of the foster father of Captain Krenn from The Final Reflection, an undrawn Grand Master of klin'zha.

And then there was "Heart of Glory."

"Heart of Glory" was the first Klingon-centered episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It featured Worf (the first episode to really put Worf front and center) meeting with renegade Klingon warriors. And it was clearly heavily influenced by The Final Reflection. Korris, one of the renegades, cries out "you have betrayed Kling!" in clear echo of the concept of klin from The Final Reflection. They make note of Worf's name (which he said was because he was fostered to humans before the "Age of Inclusion") in clear echo of the tradition of Klingons in Ford's work to change the first letter of their given name to K if they join the navy or M if they join the Marines. (All of the warriors' names began with K in the episode.) At one point, it looks like the Klingons were going to take a hostage, only to surrender the child in question. Worf is dismissive at Yar's concerns. ("Cowards take hostages. Klingons do not.") This was in direct echo of The Final Reflection:

Orion pirates take hostages for ransom. Kuve in desperation take hostages for their lives. And now the Federation shows us more rules than a Vulcan would make, about selling hostages! I will tell you what the Klingon law of hostages is: a dead thing is without value.

The only thing "Heart of Glory" lacked was Ford's name. It was a significant lack.

Ford has done much more than write about Klingons, of course. He wrote about elements of what would later be called Cyberpunk in 1980's Web of Angels, a full four years before William Gibson's Neuromancer and two years before the redefinition of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into Blade Runner. His book Growing Up Weightless won the Philip K. Dick award. He published poetry. And his RPG work was significant and broad: he did some of the seminal work on GURPS (including the GURPS 4th edition Characters section) as part of a long and fruitful association with Steve Jackson Games. He wrote some of the finest GURPS supplements, including GURPS Infinite Worlds and GURPS Time Travel. And he wrote The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, perhaps the single most significant work ever done for the Paranoia game.

Most of all, he was accessible. He was a notorious and fully forum gadfly. I had more than one conversation with him on the Steve Jackson Games forums. He was largely recognizable for his signature file, which was hysterical and which he changed at least daily (and sometimes it seemed for every post). He was also recognizable, of course, for being a funny and friendly and above all easy to talk to correspondent. Mike Ford (as he was called when not being formal) made any online home he was part of better by his presence.

And now he's dead.

Making Light broke the story. Neil Gaiman quoted the last e-mail he received from John M. Ford, just a few days ago. My friend Mason, who used to roleplay with him back in the days of the original pre-Seizure Illuminator BBS, is in shock. And everywhere I turn, people are sad, and so am I.

But not sad for Mike Ford himself. Because unlike so many of us, he had impact. He wrote good things people read and loved. He touched lives, he was always funny (even during some horrible health issues including a kidney transplant), he was always kind.

And I turn my eyes back to that improbable event that essentially no other RPG writer has done -- his Klingons, which actually reached up from his FASA products through truly great novels to help shape the course of Star Trek itself.

I said above that the one thing that "Heart of Glory" lacked was Ford's name. And it is true and it is wrong, not just because Ford's word deserved to be commemorated, but because Ford's work was better than what they ultimately went with. No episode of a future Star Trek will be dedicated to Ford's memory -- that's not the way Paramount works.

But his impact was still there. And in the poem I quoted at the top of this piece he pointed out an essential component of his Klingon culture. The stars see our actions. The naked stars know what we have done. It doesn't matter if the millions of fans of Star Trek know his name or not, if they know the things he did or not. John M. Ford's fans know what he did. His readers know what he did.

The naked stars saw his deeds, and each one remembers.

And so will I.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at September 25, 2006 2:46 PM


Comment from: MasonK [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 3:11 PM

There is nothing else I can say. Thank you for saying it so well.

Comment from: Darth Paradox [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 3:55 PM

And here I sit, on the verge of tears over a man I never knew and had barely heard of.

Looks like The Final Reflection is still in print, but Amazon's got used copies of How Much For Just The Planet. I may have to acquire both of them, now...

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 4:40 PM

Man, I loved "How Much for Just the Planet?" back in the day. I even put a very, very obscure and dumb reference to it in a Narbonic strip once.

Comment from: KennyCelican [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 4:49 PM

I'm something of an oddity among my Sci-Fi loving friends - I don't really like Trek. In too many ways it has always seemed like the product of people who mock Sci-Fi trying to cash in on the most earnest and eager of fans. Also, most of the 'old gen' episodes seem very clumsy to me. Of course, as a child of the seventies and parents who weren't themselves Sci-Fi friendly, I saw them in comparison to the original Star Wars series on film, and Tolkien on paper, which didn't really help.

Before anyone brings out the rocks, flamethrowers, or overripe vegetables, be assured that all of it has hit me before and none of it has changed my opinion to any great degree. As most of it has been thrown by my dearest wife, I doubt anyone else's mockery will move me.

That being said, there is exactly ONE Trek book I owned before I was married, and it remains the one book I refuse to part with. So while the other Trek books occasionally go to the used book resellers, or get eBayed off, "How Much for Just the Planet" sits in it's place of prominence on my bookshelf. Someday I plan on using it to lure my son into reading, comedy, and science fiction all in one swell foop. In a library containing heavy doses of Adams and Pratchett, I think that's saying rather a lot.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 8:55 PM

I checked out How Much for Just the Planet? from the library about a year ago. It was amazing and wonderful.

About six months ago, I bought another of Ford's (too few) novels in a used bookstore: The Princes of the Air. It's basically an excuse to come up with amazingly intricate, deft, and funny plots to foil a conspiracy. It's also an outstanding novel.

Anytime I saw Ford's name in a comment section (usually while passing by Making Light), I knew that whatever was written would be insanely creative.

To summarize my reaction to this news (and to contradict something I said elsewhere in reaction): dammit dammit DAMMIT.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 9:01 PM

Quotation from memory, and therefore approximate.

"What's the probability that the Klingon probe detected the planet's dilithium deposits?"

"I could only estimate."

"Then estimate."

"Estimated probability one hundred percent."

I never forget a belly laugh.

Comment from: alephtwo [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 25, 2006 10:52 PM

Paraphrased from memory:

"Spock, can you diagnose the problem?"
"Circumstances suggest spillage of a n'gaan-flavored milkshake on the sciences console. Of course this is only an informed conjecture."

Shaenon - are you just going to leave that hanging, or tell us which strip? (Rummages through archives)

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 1:21 AM

I agree with alephtwo. Don't leave us hanging, Shaenon. Peel back another layer of your genius. DIM YOUR STAR SO THAT I MAY COME CLOSER!

As for the snark... Damn you, Eric. Once again, you've written about something that I had no idea existed, but now desperately need. I never got into Star Trek that much (whenever I try to watch the old episodes on G4, I find myself more engrossed with the sidebars than the actual show), and the "Young Jedi Knights" Star Wars spinoff series was enough to scare me off of fiction novels that had origins in other mass media. And yet here I am, debating whether or not to get two books that are based on a universe of which I have only scattershot knowledge.

And rest in peace, John M. Ford. As Eric's eulogy and everyone's responses indicate, you will be missed.

Comment from: UrsulaV [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 9:13 AM

I was very bummed to hear this. He was one of my favorite commenters at "Making Light" and it took awhile before I connected him to the author of my favorite Trek book, the one with Vulcan epic poetry "I sing the hypoteneuse, sweeping square of other sides!" and blue orange juice.

Everything I saw by him led me to believe that he was a freakin' genius. All that potential, gone before he was even fifty, is a crying shame.

Comment from: kellandros [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 10:46 AM

I vaguely remember an old Star Trek novel that tried to do similar fleshing out for Romulans(Rihansu??). Can't remember the exact title, but it was the thing that made me cringe the most about Star Trek: Nemesis.

Was the authorship of this one in any way related?

Comment from: Ununnilium [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 10:49 AM

Dangit. I loved How Much For Just The Planet. A comedic Star Trek book, that wasn't a Star Trek parody! Awesomeness distilled.

Going to have to find The Final Reflection now...

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 12:28 PM

kellandros: You may be thinking of any of several of Diane Duane's Star Trek novels. She didn't always treat Romulans, but when she did they were hers. Then TNG came along and, like Ford's Klingons, they were relegated to the sidelines. But within the past few years I've seen at least one new Duane Romulan novel, with a disclaimer on the front saying, though of course not in these words, "Screw Rick Berman, these are good and we're going to publish them again." I don't remember the title of the new one I saw, but the pre-TNG ones were My Enemy, My Ally and The Romulan Way. Elements of Romulan history also figure in Spock's World.

Comment from: larksilver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 1:41 PM

I read this last night, and was so moved I could think of nothing to say (and by now we all know how rare THAT is).

Re-read it at lunch today, and the only thing I can think of - still - is this

"Darnit, Burns, how dare ye make me all weepy and grievin' over a man I've never even heard of?"

Well done, man. Your memorial snarks are always very poignant.

Comment from: Stephen G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 10:13 PM

His death really hit me hard, harder than I expected. He was an amazingly gifted man. I really appreciated your words.

Comment from: Moe Lane [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 26, 2006 10:47 PM

Oh, sweet merciful Jesus no.

Comment from: Zeekar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 27, 2006 9:29 AM

I remember the heady days of TFR-inspired Klingon fandom; I was just starting college, so the perfect age to get sucked in by that stuff. Far-flung friends I only saw at conventions joining my Line, trying to figure out the rules for klin zha, trying to reconcile the behavior and language of Star Trek III with the Klingons in the book...
Of course, now there are official klin zha rules, blessed by Mr. Ford himself, and an international society of players. The game may yet turn into his most enduring legacy - which I guess wouldn't be the worst thing, but he deserves a more prominent place in our collective memory.
I think your tribute will help. Thanks for writing it. kai kassai, Mr. Ford.

Comment from: kellandros [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 27, 2006 4:16 PM

The Romulan Way. That was the one I was thinking of. Even introduces the Horta's son as a starfleet Ensign.

Comment from: ShelBelle [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 27, 2006 5:33 PM

I don't comment here much but I read the posts every day or two - and on this one I had to comment.
I'm probably one of the most bass-ackwards Trek fans on the planet. Born after the original series had already been canceled I managed to see most of the episodes, but it was the novels that made me a real fan. They were newer, fresher, less limited by network and censors. Oddly enough, it was ST:NG that killed my fascination with Star Trek. I suffered through the first season, the cardboard characterization, the death of one of the characters I found even a glimmer of interest in, and yes, the dumbing down of the aliens, (Ferengi were supposed to be the antagonist race 'replacement' for Klingons. *shudder*) all of it. By the end of that season I gave up. I stopped watching, stopped renting, stopped giving a damn. Book prices went up and things seemed less and less original, even the books failing me for the most part. I'm a packrat, but I eventually sold most of them. A few still lingered on the shelves - the final reflection amongst them. I was able to stand from reading the eulogy here and walk right to it, sitting face up on the shelf in front of other books whose titles I couldn't tell you if you threatened my life.
I didn't know about his other accomplishments - I hadn't seen his name in years, save on those books. Now I've got to go finding his other works, and mourn the fact that there will be no more.

Comment from: LionessElise [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 28, 2006 1:25 PM

The vows Mike wrote for our Ceremony of Union are here:
(along with a poem I wrote for him a couple of years before that). Please note that he was glad to give permission to anyone who wants to use the vows. See details there.

And thank you for posting memories and other good things about Mike. It is a great comfort to those of us who are in shock and at the same time also in the epicenter of dealing with the practical concerns that a sudden death brings. I am grateful to all of you. Thank you for loving Mike's work and himself.

Elise Matthesen

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 28, 2006 2:11 PM

Of course, Mlle. Matthesen. All our hopes with you and all our thoughts with him at this troubled time.

Comment from: squidfood [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at September 29, 2006 1:22 AM

So far memories of Star Trek, I have to say that Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues did for my roleplaying what Hitchhiker's did for my enjoyment of sci-fi. Reading that Paranoia module in high school was instrumental in turning me from a hack-n-slash player to actual roleplaying (with, of course, slapstick).

Oh, and among the Planet quotes, let's not forget Chekov's charge of the golf-club brigade: "It's always 'push that button, Chekov, 'push this button Chekov. Even as a young child it was 'listen to your brother, Pavel Adronavich', 'don't speak up, Pavel Andronavich'. Well, no more!"

Comment from: fjafjan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 1, 2006 4:16 PM

"And here I sit, on the verge of tears over a man I never knew and had barely heard of."

Yeah, seconded, very well written *bow*

If only my eulogy could be as good as that :)

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 3, 2006 4:36 PM

I'm not a Trekkie. I've seen many but not all of the movies and have a basic geek grounding in the characters and what the universe is about, but never would I have called myself a "fan".

Based solely on the strength of your commendation and the commendations from others reading this thread, I picked up a copy of ...For Just The Planet at my local library.

I am totally digging this book. Pity the majority of Star Trek isn't more like it. I mean, sure, I've got issues with it; I am unable to suspend my disbelief at the concept of Vulcan milkshakes, no matter how many apostrophes you throw into the substance they're supposedly flavored with. And I guess I'm not sure his treatment of computer AIs is wholly true to the universe. But niggling details aside, this is a wonderfully funny book. I would never have known the name John M. Ford from Adam's without this essay, but now I have to mourn with little pangs right along with the rest of you. Such a tragedy.

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?